Why don’t we stage more controlled burns?

Fire crews working in the Tahoe National Forest are clearing hazard trees within a prescribed burn area. That's where fires are intentionally lit for forest health projects. Photo by Ezra Romero / Capital Public Radio
Fire crews working in the Tahoe National Forest are clearing hazard trees within a prescribed burn area. That’s where fires are intentionally lit for forest health projects. Photo by Ezra Romero / Capital Public Radio

The idea: Fighting fire with fire has been going on in California since before European settlement. If carefully planned and monitored, these small purpose-set fires can quickly remove dangerous fuels and dead trees

The pros: Clearing trees and brush is a critical component of California’s approach to fire mitigation, and using strategically set fires to do that is an inexpensive alternative to tree cutting: Sending crews in to physically remove trees can cost as much as $1,400 an acre. Controlled burns are a relative bargain, coming in at about $150 an acre. Small, low-intensity burns are ultimately healthy for forests. And it’s more efficient than that raking-the-forest-like-Finland idea …

The cons: Even closely monitored burns discharge polluting and unhealthful smoke. It’s not uncommon for a prescribed burn that took two years to plan to be scrubbed because residents in a nearby town complained. Also the flames can be dangerous and it’s a bit jarring to see firefighters set fires.

The odds: Very good, an 8. Under a plan agreed to in August, the state and the U.S. Forest Service set a goal to thin 1 million acres a year by 2025, which would roughly double the current rate. Controlled burns would be a part of that work. Everyone likes the idea of controlled burns, in theory. But we may have to get used to them as a norm.